Is it necessary to pick a side to enjoy watching a sport?
I don’t think there’s a ‘correct answer’ here, but personally, I always end up rooting for one side over another – even if I’m watching two unseeded players in an early Wimbledon round, both of whom I’ve never heard of before. Why do I do that? Well, you only get returns if you invest and take a little risk. And to experience the fullest a sport can offer you, an emotional connection is the investment you need to make. The rewards vary widely; your team’s loss in a crucial match could drive you to screw up your exam the next day, or your favourite player’s success story can serve as an inspiration for your entire lifetime.
The latter is somewhat unlikely and exaggerated, but Rafael Nadal for me, comes very close.
Things the numbers say
Before I launch into an elegy elucidating my man-crush, here’s a little something that’ll give you, in the event that you haven’t heard of him before reading this (which is about as unlikely as you, your alien buddy and your towel being scooped up by an extra-terrestrial vehicle moments before the destruction of your planet), some perspective.
1. Nadal is considered the best claycourt tennis player of all time. As of 2014, he has won nine French Open titles. That’s more than any man, at any Grand Slam. He holds similar all-time records for the Monte-Carlo Masters (8), Rome Masters (7) and Barcelona Open (8).
2. He holds the record of winning a Grand Slam every year for the past 10 years, and is one of the two men who have won at least two Grand Slams on each of the three surfaces (with Mats Wilander).
3. He has the best career winning percentage of 83.71% among men, and is one of two men to have completed the Career Golden Slam (with Andre Agassi). He currently has 14 Majors, second only to Roger Federer.
These are a few of many, but when one has achieved the kind of greatness that makes one a worthy contender of the Greatest Of All Time debate, there’s a lot more to talk about than mere statistics. Moreover, numbers are the least of what you can take away from this Spaniard.
Inspiration on a daily basis
Resurgence after a seemingly irreparable loss, battling a deadly ailment and coming out on top, the journey of an underdog constantly defying odds – that’s the kind of stuff that makes your insides fluid while lighting up your face with the bright resolve of a pre-teen orphan announcing to the world his intentions of becoming the most respected ninja of his village. But what if it’s not an incident or a journey, but the very sight of a player in action every single time he comes out to play, that flares up your entire being?
Nadal’s game in itself is probably the most inspirational part of his story, and just to watch him play tickles my vertebrae. He doesn’t have an exceptional serve, isn’t fond of the serve-and-volley nor does he have a single-handed backhand that allows him a variety of exquisite shots. What he does have though, is the kind of court coverage that can make you think you’re hitting against a perfectly elastic wall, and a forehand that, as Murray describes it, is simply ‘ridiculous’.
Some call it brute force, but take one look at competitors like Soderling, Tsonga or Del Potro, and you know it can’t just be that. Such is his tenacity that his adversaries claim they need to win a point a three times from him before it is actually won. Seeing this man put in such a superhuman amount of effort in every point frankly makes you feel silly about how just a minute ago you were refusing to get up and fetch the TV remote to decrease the volume.
The endearing imperfection
Yes, Nadal does not make the game look like poetry in motion, nor does he have the effortless grace that would draw comparisons of his forehand to a fluidic whip. On the contrary, he’s the guy chasing down everything, playing long rallies from the far end and landing short of the baseline, but imparting so much topspin to every groundstroke that it completely skews the RPM graph for players.
He’s not the maestro, but the assiduous nerd who constantly challenges himself to see how far he can go. When he has a bad day, he doesn’t make excuses, but you can see his physical discomfort (and later have it vindicated in the news report).
Forgive me if I say the perfect all-rounder Cedric Diggory’s feats don’t have me jumping in my seat like Harry’s irrational bravado.
Throwing all subtlety out the window, a comparison to Federer is inevitable and warranted. Given Federer’s all-round record and picture-perfect play, he’s the favourite for the GOAT debate, but credence must be given to Andre Agassi’s words. While Federer accumulated a substantial number of Majors before the Big Four strode on to the scene properly (the ‘weak era’ theory, as it’s being called these days), Nadal has seen his heyday in the golden age of tennis, against the likes of Djokovic, Murray and the Maestro himself.
Nadal’s style of play is not what a coach would recommend to a budding teenage prodigy, and there have been countless criticisms, even predictions about how it would lead to a quick and painful downfall in his mid-twenties itself. Well, he’s 28 and already the second highest ever in terms of Majors accumulated. What were the critics saying again?
Granted, there have been periods of absence, but the fact that he can come back after 7 months, win 22 matches on the trot and claim a record ninth French Open, or that he has achieved so much despite the intermittent breaks, only serve to prove how the setbacks strengthen him and how much he yearns to be on the court again.
The Real Life Movie
My Taylor Swift fandom apart (for which I’m sorely judged by my peers), at times I feel I’m a teenage girl at heart. Following Nadal’s career is like witnessing in the real world a high school movie meant to motivate the diligent nerd. While he is by no means an underdog now, the emotional investment just comes naturally.
Read about a knee injury; I fear for the worst. Watch him come back with panache; I go ballistic. See him roll in the dirt with unabashed happiness, I can’t stop giggling. He comforts the opponent with humility, I tear up a little bit. He bites the cup as an adorable tradition, and I bite my lip, smiling from ear to ear – knowing that this man will never cease to amaze me, even by the time he has a racquet in one hand, and a stick in the other.